Sydney McLaughlin shattered her own world record by .78 seconds. That was world record number four in two years. Her first came when she became the only woman to dip below 52 seconds in the 400 meter hurdles, clocking 51.90 seconds at the 2021 US Olympic Trials. She lowered the record even further at the 2021 Olympic Games to 51.46 seconds. Then she shaved .05 seconds off of that mark at a warm-up meet four weeks prior to her legendary 50.68 second run at the 2022 World Athletics Championships.
From the vantage point of section 124, row K, seat 10 at the newly minted Hayward Field, I watched as a race for the ages unfolded. An air of anticipation permeated the stadium. Even with runner introductions there was a sense that this was going to be something special. When the camera panned Sydney’s face she was the picture of concentration. She politely bowed her head when her name was called. But there were no waves. No smiles. No emotions. She was all business. Into the blocks, on your marks, set, go. She was off. Halfway through the race, Sydney had made up so much of the stagger on the field, which included former world recorder holders and Olympians, that I wondered out loud: what are we watching here? Sydney responded about 25 seconds later.
During her post-race interview Sydney first thanked her family, acknowledging that her successes could not have happened without them. When asked about her future plans to further lower the world record Sydney remained non-committal, casually stating that she had actually thought she could have run faster in this race, but there were also a lot of other things that she wanted to try. So she may return next season to further lower the 400 meter hurdle world record or she may embark on a new beginning.
We are all of us filled with new beginnings. As a former competitive runner, mine have been inextricably intertwined with the rhythms of the track seasons. The summer was the height of the outdoor season, and if you were competing in July/August, you were having a successful season as that was when the marquee events took place. In the fall you retrenched to reflect on the past indoor and outdoor seasons, evaluate what went well and what didn’t, in order to focus your training on improvements during the off-season.
Track & Field is a sport of measurements where mere tenths of seconds and fractions of meters can separate gold medalists and world record holders from also-runs. In the men’s 100 meter final the silver and bronze medalists (who were clocked at identical times) ran .02 seconds slower than the gold medalist. In the women’s long jump final, the fourth place finisher missed reaching the medal stand by .01 meters. The realization of slivers of seconds and margins of meters happens year over year in small increments. So, much is poured into the off-season: building strength, gaining speed, developing stamina, all in furtherance of those incremental improvements. January is the start of the indoor season and the long march towards personal bests at major events in late summer.
I have been so conditioned to these rhythms that they permeate my very being. And though my competitive days are long behind me, late summer remains a time to either claim victories, or recalibrate. Thus the summer of 2022 became my unburdening.
I first stepped onto a track during an AAU event that I stumbled upon through a school outing. I had never run track, or even contemplated the sport, though I had engaged in other athletic activities (gymnastics, swimming, ballet). At the event, I was egged on mercilessly by my classmates to race. Succumbing to the battery, I entered a race wearing worn out blue jeans and Keds. I had no concept of a pre-race warm-up, and had never touched a starting block. But somehow lightning struck. Restricted in range of motion by my long pants and unable to gain solid traction due to the lack of spikes, I none-the-less smoked the field in my 200 meter race! A star is born?
Buoyed by my instant success, I found my way to the sport and eventually joined my High School’s track team. I started where my victory began, the 200 meters. And my victories continued as I racked up championships and school records. These results soon got me noticed, and I was recruited to join a collegiate team. That was major.
I was thrilled for the opportunity to elevate my running to the next level. Based on my strength and speed, my college coach moved me up to the 400 meters. It was the right move. I excelled more at the 400 than the 200. With this success, I was placed on all of the relays: 4×4, 4×2, distance medley, sprint medley. I was a running machine. At the end of my senior year, my coach commented that I had played mother-hen to all of the relays for the past four years. Thus I earned the reputation for being a workhorse, and in the inimitable words of my college coach, my come from behind victorious relay legs were a testament to my “intestinal fortitude”.
In those days, most of my competitions took place in my hometown. Through ten years of home competitions (AAU, High School, college) both indoor and outdoor seasons, and one ill-fated cross country season, countless races, my parents who lived scant miles away from where I competed, came to see me run once. And in their one-time foray they arrived late and missed my open event. They were there just in time to see my leg of the 4×4 relay. Yes, the last event of the competition. Coincidentally, that was also the last competition of my collegiate career.
To say that my athletic endeavors were not supported by my family would be an understatement. In fact, I was actively discouraged. In my longing for acknowledgment of my successes from my family, I developed the habit of displaying medals on the dresser in my bedroom, knowing that my room was subject to frequent inspections. But instead of ever hearing anything congratulatory – bronze, silver, gold, all I heard was “You run too much”.
It wasn’t that my family was completely disinterested and lacking in generosity. Quite the contrary. It was that my family was overinvested in their church: Tuesday night choir practice, Wednesday night mid-week service, Friday night devotional, at least three services on Sunday (early morning, Sunday school, mid-morning), as well as regular annual events and occasional special events. This left precious little time for much else. So anything falling outside of the purview of their religion simply did not exist.
One of their religious teachings emphasized uplifting the downtrodden. This purported to demonstrate familial love, care and closeness, and was also an act to get closer to their god. This manifested in disproportionate investments in the ne’er-do-wells or otherwise needy (unemployed, school dropouts, criminals, substance abusers), to the exclusion of investments in the successful. The irony is, even with support, the lesser motivated still didn’t manage much more than life around the margins. These perversely skewed priorities created a detrimental duality wherein support withheld delimited advancement, while support provided only resulted in inconsequential gains.
Yet, despite a lack of support, my desire to break into the elite was unwavering. I wouldn’t characterize my collegiate career as stellar but I did make steady improvements throughout college, so much so that I felt I could do more. I hadn’t peaked. Unfinished business fueled the drive to reach new heights and colored my decisions. I decided that going to graduate school would afford me the best opportunity to continue to race. So I left home and moved out of state with some trepidation, but also with great anticipation.
In relocating, I was able to train with Olympic coaches on two separate occasions. They each had record holders, champions and Olympians to their credit. They knew how to spot talent and realize potential. I was in good hands.
Through their tutelage I moved up to the 400 meter hurdles – Sydney’s race. Talented, driven, I pursued my dreams with a passion. But it wasn’t just the pursuit that kept me going. Equally, it was the incomparable sensation of pushing my body to the limit, then returning on another day and exceeding that. I loved working out! One of my bragging rights workouts was when I cleared 50 hurdles in one session. Run down, jog back. Run down, jog back. Ten flights, 5 hurdles each. And hills, forget about it! I was a maniac on the hills. No one could beat me in a hill workout. But none of what I possessed could overcome that which I lacked.
Graduate school soon gave way to full-time employment. Working full-time became incompatible with putting in the training needed to reach the next level. And though I could, of my own accord, summon the motivation to keep going, that too became exhausting. As fatigue mounted I became injury prone. The consequence of which was further set-backs due to a lack of continuity in my training.
So I never achieved my goals. One coach implored me to unburden myself of everything except track. He firmly believed that the times I was chasing were within my reach. The other referred to me as “the great underachiever” for never having realized his predictions for me. As my training partners reached their peaks I plateaued.
But my underachievement was not due to frivolity. Rather, it was born of necessity. I didn’t have the luxury to cut back. I had no family support, financially or otherwise – which actually was nothing new. Perhaps not surprisingly, I had paid for my swimming, gymnastics and ballet classes when I was a kid, through babysitting and other odd jobs, and I made it to my classes on my own using public transportation. So this time was no different. I worked full-time to fund my endeavors and my belief in myself kept me going. Ultimately though, dedication and drive gave way to financial necessity.
In the end, maybe I did run too much because I stayed on the circuit well beyond when I should have ceased to evaluate my life through the lens of running. At the time, I lacked sufficient counsel to arrive at timely decisions. My belief in myself clouded my judgement. I was chasing a dream. One that, at least according to my coaches, was not entirely unwarranted. Who knows how far my talents would have taken me with even a modicum of support. Had I had an unfettered path to pursue my goals I would have been fine with whatever results came my way. Instead, unrealized potential consumed me. Dogged determination can also be detrimental. But now I am unburdened.
I suppose I suffered from a form of arrested development when it came to my running. Belatedly, I have finally relinquished that which I have carried for far too long: lamenting lost opportunities for marginal improvements, failing to make a national team and mourning summer seasons that were not. Sitting in the stands of the 2022 edition of the World Athletics Championships in glorious Hayward Field, watching records fall, and dreams manifest, I realized that mine was a dream that was doomed from the start. I had to stop grieving. For it wasn’t enough to have hung up my spikes, I also had to unburden myself of the longings. I had been chasing dreams that in any case were never going to happen. As Sydney so aptly put it, none of it is possible without support.
And support is not limited to the victorious. At each event of the championships last place finishers received cheers comparable to winners. Their efforts were enthusiastically celebrated. I am reminded of the poignant moment during the men’s 400 meter semi-final race of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games when Derek Redmond the British national record holder and a medal favorite pulled a muscle early in the race. Unable to run, but intent on crossing the finish line, he started to hobble down the track. His father, witnessing his son’s agony, waved off security and other detractors, jumped on the track and helped his son walk across the finish line to an outpouring of adulation, Olympic dreams dashed. That is unconditional support.
Of course support transcends sport. Sophie Araque-Liu, the winner of the 2022 Google Doodle Competition, depicted a compassionate embrace between mother and daughter titled Not Alone. Hers was a message of support systems that helped through hard times.
Sometime well after I had hung up my spikes, I learned that I would be inducted into my university’s Track & Field Hall of Fame. I was far from being the most accomplished runner at my school, and not nearly as decorated as others. However being thus acknowledged somehow validated my efforts. I felt that my pursuits had been justified.
The induction ceremonies were held in my hometown. Given my family’s history of non-attendance at my athletic events, I knew they would not likely attend this milestone event in my honor. After all there was no association with the church. So in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to explain to my fellow class of inductees that although my family lived just down the road, none of them was there, I decided to purchase tickets for my parents, siblings, and their significant others.
Had I not done so, I feared I would have been sitting at a nearly empty table, with just me and my husband, while my teammates enjoyed the support of their family and friends. In fact several of my other relatives had received invitations to my induction ceremony. Two came: a cousin and his daughter who ran track. Others didn’t even acknowledge it.
A few years later there was a subsequent event in which my university honored female athletes from all sports who had made significant contributions to the university’s athletic program. I was again featured. There were a series of events which took place over a weekend consisting of home basketball and football games and an evening mixer. Athletes were paraded out during the half-time of each game, and celebrated through memorabilia and storytelling at the mixer.
This time I decided not to buy tickets for anyone and this time no one from my family showed up for any of the events. My earlier fears were confirmed – which was probably just as well, because as I sat listening to family and friends of other honorees recite stories, chapter and verse, about how someone had performed at a particular competition, or in a particular event, I knew that my family would not have been able to join in. Indeed my family would have been hard pressed to even name any event that I had competed in! Such embarrassment would have been worse than their non-attendance.
That was the first time I returned home and didn’t see anyone in my family. It was also the first time I experienced a rush of emotions from cumulative years of disappointments and allowed the tears to flow. I broke down at breakfast just before heading to the airport, leaving town without having seen my family. It was finally all too much. When out to dinner the night before a perfect stranger had walked up to me and said they were at the basketball game where I had been honored, and congratulated me for my achievements and contributions. I was appreciative of the generosity of strangers.
This generous gesture reflected that which I have come to embody, partly because I never experienced it growing up, and partly because it is simply fundamental to my personal core values. I believe that life’s pursuits are worthy, to whatever end. So I personally invest in helping others achieve their dreams, and derive great satisfaction when they do. I have chosen a profession of supporting organizations and professionals to realize their maximum potential. I have also embraced a philosophy of holding dear and investing in reciprocal relationships, while letting go of that which burdens me. And I have certainly gained meaningful and supportive relationships, including some family, along the way.
But as with running, I held on to the ideal of deep family ties for far too long. These beliefs were vestiges of ideals perpetuated by religious doctrines espoused by my family. And familial relations – or the allusions thereof, can be much more difficult to let go of.
Given my devotion, I continued to invest in family over the years: wedding gifts, graduation gifts, birthday gifts, congratulatory flowers, trips home (at my expense) to treat family to meals and events. But my efforts were not reciprocated. Instead, my family expressed a sense of entitlement. So I started to retreat. Finally, just last year not a single blood relative wished me a happy birthday on my birthday – including my mother. At some point enough has to be enough. So I let go.
With the perspective of time, I have come to appreciate that my family’s religious devotions were in part a consequence of the circumstances in which they grew up (the apartheid Deep South) and in part cultural. Religion stood as a beacon of hope where none otherwise existed. So I have forgiven, and even embrace, some of that devotion.
Yet it is still incumbent upon everyone to move beyond that which they have overcome. Failure to do so can retard one’s existence and compromise relationships. Surely there can be enough lifting of the family veil to include support for successful members in endeavors beyond religion in addition to support for the downtrodden. But my relatives have not evolved. So I have disabused myself of the notion that I have an abundantly loving, caring and close family, as we have vastly disparate definitions of what that means. I now temper my investments in them. Thus I arrived at my second unburdening.
When my athletic pursuits gave way to professional pursuits, I entered the world of work with a vengeance. The void of previously unrealized potential powered the engine of my drive to advance professionally. Cognizant of having lost ground to my peers due to years of dedication to my sport, I had to play a game of catch-up. It was not without its challenges, the recitation of which would constitute a whole nother article. But running equipped me with the ability to engineer come from behind victories. It took time, but I did successfully reach the pinnacle of my profession.
We are the sum of our life experiences. I am still a workhorse and I still possess intestinal fortitude. Traits honed on the track, in weight rooms and on trails. I am also compelled to stand up for what is right, a value derived from witnessing and experiencing wrongs as a black woman living in the U.S. So recently, when what I thought would be a dream job turned out to be a nightmare I refused to endorse bad behavior and dysfunction and I resigned. That amounted to my final unburdening.
Alyson Felix, the most decorated athlete, male or female, of World Athletics Championships history, played an important role in advancing the U.S. women’s 4×4 relay team to the final, running the second leg in qualifying heats. However, in the final, she was content to relinquish her spot on the squad to Sydney McLaughlin for the good of the team. Sydney’s anchor leg of 47.90 seconds punctuated the championships. One of the longest standing women’s world records is 47.60 seconds in the 400 meters set by the great German runner Marita Koch in 1985. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Sydney could substantially better that mark should she decide to focus on the flat 400 meters as her new beginning.
My next race also lies ahead undefined. Unburdened and sufficiently retrenched, I look forward to what will gloriously unfold before me and will relish in that new beginning. Mine is not a story of defeat. Mine is a story of character building and gratitude for lessons learned. I will supplant in kind that which never was with that which will be.
Lisa James is an accomplished C-Level Executive well regarded for leading organizations through transformational change. Work for top global professional services firms with responsibilities for operations in the US, Europe, the UK, Asia Pacific, Greater China, Latin America and the Middle East.